Dissident Gardens

( 11 )


A New York Times Notable Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, The Globe and Mail

Jonathan Lethem, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the MacArthur Fellowship whose writing has been called “as ambitious as [Norman] Mailer, as funny as Philip Roth, and as stinging as Bob Dylan” (Los Angeles Times), returns with an...

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Dissident Gardens: A Novel

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A New York Times Notable Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, The Globe and Mail

Jonathan Lethem, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the MacArthur Fellowship whose writing has been called “as ambitious as [Norman] Mailer, as funny as Philip Roth, and as stinging as Bob Dylan” (Los Angeles Times), returns with an epic yet intimate family saga.
Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist who savages neighbors, family, and political comrades with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her equally passionate and willful daughter, Miriam, flees Rose’s influence for the dawning counterculture of Greenwich Village. Despite their differences, they share a power to enchant the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her feckless chess hustler cousin, Lenny; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinger husband, Tommy Gogan; and their bewildered son, Sergius. Through Lethem’s vivid storytelling we come to understand that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Over three generations and ever-changing historical tides, the dissident gardens of the title grow in unpredictable ways in Sunnyside, Queens. Presiding over the dissidence is Rose Zimmer, a ferocious, unrepentant American Communist Party member who terrorizes her neighbors with her citizen patrols, angry outbursts, and petitions. Her independent-minded daughter Miriam takes a different route, becoming deeply involved with the lifestyle and political revolutions of bohemian Greenwich Village. Hovering near these female powerhouses are several men, including husbands, lovers, sons, and chess hustlers. Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn; Fortress of Solitude) has produced another ensemble novel of sharp character portrayal and subtle social commentary.

The New York Times Book Review - Yiyun Li
Dissident Gardens seamlessly weaves together three generations, yet it doesn't broadcast itself as a multigenerational epic, nor is it afflicted by the desire to pose as the next great American novel. It's an intimate book.
The New York Times - Janet Maslin
In Dissident Gardens, a novel jampacked with the human energy of a crowded subway car, Jonathan Lethem attempts a daunting feat: turning three generations' worth of American leftists into a tragicomic tale of devolution. He has couched this as a family story and written it so that someone's hot breath is always in the reader's face…It's a big book set in small spaces—kitchen, classroom, folky nightclub—that keep its battles personal at all times…[a] wild, logorrheic, hilarious and diabolical novel. Those who reflexively compare Mr. Lethem to other Jonathans, like Jonathan Franzen, would be better off invoking Philip Roth to characterize this one.
Publishers Weekly
While collective memory might offer some hazy grasp of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklists, all but forgotten is the real American Communist Party and its Depression-era heyday. In this epic and complex new novel, Lethem considers what happened to the ACP, as well as some other questions, about maternal isolation and filial resentment. The book begins with the case of Rose Zimmer, in Queens, New York, who was officially ousted from the party in 1955 for sleeping with a black cop. Rose’s daughter, Miriam, is a teenager at the time, and she soon discovers the pull of Greenwich Village bohemians. Rose’s and Miriam’s stories are interwoven, as the narrative moves back and forth in time, uncovering Rose’s doomed relationships, as well as Miriam’s fiery determination to escape her mother’s rage. Miriam’s son, Sergius, also comes into the story—as a child and an adult, juxtaposing three generations—along with Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s black cop boyfriend, an unexpected member of the family by proxy and the most interesting character of the book by far. Cicero formed an unexpected relationship with the bitter, Jewish woman as a kid, and, in turn, became a beneficiary of her intellect. All together, the cast makes for a heady, swirly mix of fascinating, lonely people. Lethem’s writing, as always, packs a witty punch. The epoch each character inhabits is artfully etched and the book is as illuminating of 20th-century American history as it is of the human burden of overcoming alienation. Agent: Eric Simonoff, WME Entertainment. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Rose Zimmer, an unreconstructed communist who torments her neighbors in Sunnyside Gardens, NY, and daughter Miriam, a strong-willed political activist who shares her mother's misplaced ideology but rejects her influence, instead forging her own way in the subculture of Greenwich Village, are the central characters in this stunning new novel by Brooklyn-based Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn). Miriam marries Irish folksinger Tommy Gogan, and their confounded son, Sergius, becomes a third-generation radical. Rose is married to Albert, a German Jew, but has an affair with a black policeman, an act that threatens her Communist Party connection. Among the novel's other unforgettable characters are Lenny Angrush, Rose's good-for-nothing nephew, and Cicero Lookins, the brainy son of her lover. Spanning several major events—from 1930s McCarthyism through the recent Occupy Wall Street movement—and featuring an imaginative nonlinear time sequence so that the novel's particulars arrive at unexpected moments, this work is a moving, hilarious satire of American ideology and utopian dreams, but, most of all, it's about love. VERDICT Sure to be a hit among fans of satirical novels, especially of a political nature; Lethem enthusiasts may find this to be his best yet. Very highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 3/25/13.]—Lisa Block, Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews
A dysfunctional family embodies a dysfunctional epoch, as the novelist continues his ambitious journey through decades, generations and the boroughs of New York. Having scaled the literary peaks of Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and the Chronic City (2009) of Manhattan, one of America's premier novelists sets his sights on Queens, though the title of the opening section, "Boroughphobia," suggests that this is a place to escape--or at least for a daughter to escape from her mother. The mother is Jewish, strong-willed, contrarian Rose Zimmer, a Communist booted from the cell because of her relationship with a black policeman. ("Everyone thought it was an affair between Jew and black but it wasn't. It was between cop and Commie.") Her husband had returned to Germany as a suspected spy, leaving Rose to raise Miriam, a red-diaper baby transformed by the '60s, a "Bolshevik of the five senses" who became irresistibly sexy, "not for her bodily self but for her appetite: she devoured the ripe fruit of the world." The setup of this novel is so frequently funny that it reads like homage to classic Philip Roth, yet the book, like the end of the 20th century, takes a darker turn, as hippie naïveté leads to more dangerous activism, illusions shatter, and old age takes its toll. Following "the unashamed homosexual bacchanal that had become possible in the historical margin between Stonewall and disease," funerals would supplant parties as social gatherings. The novel's social realism finds '60s folk fixtures such as Dave Van Ronk and the Rev. Gary Davis mixing with Miriam and her eventual husband, Tommy Grogan, a musician who moves from a traditional Irish family trio to protest songs, a career eclipsed (like so many others) by the rise of Bob Dylan. But it also features Archie Bunker (if only in Rose's mind) and a devastating record review by P.K. Tooth (from Chronic City, in tribute here to the late Paul Nelson). In "a city gone berserk," pretty much every character struggles with identity, destiny and family. Not Lethem's tightest novel, but a depth of conviction underlies its narrative sprawl.
From the Publisher
“The year’s best novel.” —The New Republic

“Emotionally complex, stylistically sophisticated. . . . As a story about a quarrelsome family entangled with impossible ideals, it’s touchingly universal.” —The Washington Post
“A typically Lethem-esque cast of zanies, communalists, sexual adventurers, innocents, druggies, dreamers, and do-gooders . . . whose lives collide and clash with gut-busting humor, heart, and hubris.” —Elle

“As ambitious as Mailer, as funny as Philip Roth and as stinging as Bob Dylan . . . Dissident Gardens shows Lethem in full possession of his powers as a novelist, as he smoothly segues between historical periods and internal worlds . . . Erudite, beautifully written, wise, compassionate, heartbreaking and pretty much devoid of nostalgia.” —Los Angeles Times

Dissident Gardens seamlessly weaves together three generations, yet it doesn't broadcast itself as a multigenerational epic, nor is it afflicted by the desire to pose as the next great American novel. It's an intimate book.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A tour de force, a brilliant, satiric journey through America's dissident history.”—The Star Tribune

“Lethem has artfully blended, redefined, ignored, satirized and enriched the traditional categories of fiction.” —The Plain Dealer

 “Remarkable. . . . Lethem's best novel since Motherless Brooklyn. . . . Crackle[s] with wordplay and intelligence.” —The Miami Herald

 “The writing soars. . . . Lethem can riff with the best, spinning knockout lines that make you stop and stare . . . while you admire a sentence’s every turn.” —The Seattle Times

 “An assured, expert literary performance by one of our most important writers. . . . Magnificent.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Brilliantly caustic and deeply moving. . . . Rather than a history book writ small, we realize, this is a powerful family portrait writ large.” —Haaretz Israel

 “A brilliant, funny, compendious novel at whose heart lies a sharp, slim blade of thought and style. It is the quality of [Lethem’s] perception, his empathy, that makes this material new: that sharpness is the sharpness of a mind at work, re-radicalizing a radical era with notions both literary and political that are outside itself.” —The Guardian London

“A righteous, stupendously involving novel about the personal toll of failed political movements and the perplexing obstacles to doing good. . . . Lethem is breathtaking in this torrent of potent voices, searing ironies, pop-culture allusions, and tragicomic complexities.” —Booklist starred review

“The cast is a heady, swirly mix of fascinating, lonely people. Lethem's writing, as always, packs a witty punch. . . . As illuminating of 20th-century American history as it is of the human burden of overcoming alienation.” —Publishers Weekly

The Barnes & Noble Review

Jonathan Lethem has a narrow range of interests, but he embraces them so intensely, so full-throatedly, that his oeuvre looks like the work of a polymath. His polestars: rock and pop music (You Don't Love Me Yet), provocateurs literary and visual (The Fortress of Solitude), New York City (Motherless Brooklyn and on and on). Any writer dedicated to filling whole books on the Talking Heads album Fear of Music and the funny-on-purpose-sort-of B-horror classic They Live has a busy mind, but even those books only underscore the singularity of Lethem's preferred milieu: the American brand of iconoclasm that launched in the '60s (the decade in which he was born) and the cultural and personal legacy that window smashing, figurative and otherwise, has left in the decades hence.

Reading Dissident Gardens, his comic, infuriated, and (in its superb closing chapters) mournful ninth novel, it's a wonder that he hasn't delved so deeply into politics sooner. The Left, after all, has animated so much of what he's admired as a novelist and critic, from soul power to science fiction to experimental film. Perhaps it takes nine novels to learn how to elude the didacticism that threatens such a theme. But in Rose Zimmer, a hard-nosed but emotionally slippery fellow traveler, Lethem has found a way to leaven this story without giving you the impression he's avoiding the seriousness of the subject. It's a very funny novel until, suddenly, it's not.

The story bounces around in time, but we meet Rose in 1955, just as she's fallen afoul of Communist Party apparatchiks in the Queens neighborhood of Sunnyside Gardens. Her crime? Pursuing an affair with a black cop, Douglas Lookins — the cop-ness, not the black-ness, being the problem. But the Party has problems all over. Khrushchev has demoralized the movement by disclosing the horrors of Stalin's purges, and the U.S. functionaries demoralized Rose years earlier by hustling her husband off to serve as a spy in the newly founded East Germany. "What was Rose's failed marriage except evidence, against the whole fable of American history, that European chains could never be shrugged off?" Lethem writes.

The novel's drama — and guilty pleasure — is in watching Lethem's cast wriggle. Rose's daughter, Miriam, is a red-diaper baby to the core — "her whole body demanded revolution and gleaming cities in which revolution could be played out" — yet her youthful enthusiasms run closer to Dylan than to SDS. Her romance with a would-be Dylan, Tommy, agonizes Rose: "I tried to raise a young woman but apparently produced an American teenager in her place," she rages as she catches the two in bed. (How much Miriam is and is not her mother's daughter is one of the book's most consistent and deepest tensions.) So Rose's indoctrination efforts are directed instead to Cicero Lookins, Douglas's son. Mission accomplished: "He'd said Help him find the chess books and been handed back a boy who if you put him in great seats behind home plate and tried to settle in to enjoy a game began asking you if you'd read James Baldwin."

Much of Dissident Gardens envelops this parcel of Queens in a nostalgic glow similar to the one that 1970s Brooklyn acquired in the early pages of The Fortress of Solitude. (Slip off the dust jacket: Mets colors.) Its first half largely comprises comic set pieces: Rose's cousin Lenny trying to give the borough a red-tinted baseball team, the Sunnyside Proletarians; a grown-up Cicero intimidating undergrads as a "career magical Negro" lecturer in high-end literary theory; young mother Miriam stonily, disastrously, going on a quiz-show segment of the Today show; Rose visiting a Jewish commune in New Jersey with her husband, years before he was stripped from her: "The place could be taken for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, with the improvement that if you leapt from the window you'd land not ten stories onto pavement but a few feet into dust and manure." Laugh lines abound, but each scene is shot through with a sense of loss and missed opportunities.

In his more exasperating moments — his clunky rock novel You Don't Love Me Yet or the loopier essays in 2011's The Ecstasy of Influence — Lethem's referent-heavy, bulky prose can make good fun feel like hard work; I think of his prose style as hipster James, though you don't always enter a Lethem sentence with the same confidence James gives you that you'll make a clean exit. Dissident Gardens has its gunked-up passages, too, but its overall arc is as graceful and considered as anything he's written. Two-thirds through, as an aging Rose falls for Archie Bunker, Lethem's prose is so perfectly attuned to the patter of All in the Family that it doesn't immediately register that what he's capturing is dementia and collapse.

And collapse upon collapse: The closing pages of Dissident Gardens reveal fates for Miriam, Tommy, Lenny, and Cicero that leave them temperamentally distant from the people we first met. Which is the point of any political novel — that lives and ideologies have consequences. And by working in a few digs at the TSA, Lethem finds a way to fully integrate the Zimmer tale into the present. It's an amusingly subversive move in a novel about subversives: A bit of smash-the- security-state rhetoric from a writer who's now established enough to have his books sold at the airport.

Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who's spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington City Paper, and many other publications. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewed by Mark Athitakis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385534932
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/10/2013
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 72,104
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan  Lethem

JONATHAN LETHEM is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, and of the nonfiction collection The Ecstasy of Influence, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lethem’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, among other publications.


The son of artists and activists, Jonathan Lethem has always been surrounded by art and archetypes. His father, avant-garde painter Richard Brown Lethem, ensured that the household was always bustling with fellow artists, live nude models, and a creative spirit. Despite the nurturing, artistic setting, Lethem's teen years were demanding -- his mother died of cancer when he was 14, and the streets of his Brooklyn neighborhood forced him to toughen up at a young age.

Lethem's Brooklyn is rich with history and stories. Much of the world knows Brooklyn through the movies and television -- as an urban maze just outside the glitter of Manhattan. But Lethem's novels deliver a more emotional and brutal reality of the streets he called home (and still does). The Brooklyn culture of his childhood became the sidewalk on which he built his critically acclaimed Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Lethem attended the High School for Music and Art in NYC, where he studied painting but began to hone his love of literature. An insatiable reader, he read the classic and the contemporary, including Kerouac, Mailer, Vonnegut, Chandler, Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Kafka. While still in high school, he finished a 125-page novel called Heroes. It was never published but is rumored to be the earliest form of what became The Fortress of Solitude.

After high school, Lethem attended Bennington College in Vermont but dropped out after the first semester to work on his writing. He returned to Bennington briefly, but eventually made the move to California, hitchhiking his way across the country to arrive in Berkeley in 1984. This experience, and the years he spent in San Francisco, provided the inspiration for his first three novels, Amnesia Moon(1995), As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and Girl in Landscape (1998).

In late 1996, Lethem moved back to Brooklyn and began writing the book that would put him on the lips of every publisher and reader in the country. When Motherless Brooklyn was released in 1999, readers fell in love with its fascinating lead characters, relentless plot, and detailed setting. It was an instant success and won many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Lethem's long-awaited next novel, The Fortress of Solitude, hit the shelves four years later, in 2003. He conducted a lot of research for the book, gaining yet another perspective on his beloved hometown. The novel is again set in Brooklyn, on Dean Street, where Lethem grew up. Over three decades, the two lead characters -- Dylan and Mingus -- experience the world through the prisms of race relations, music, and pop culture in a disturbing and compelling story of loyalty and loss, vulnerability and superhero powers.

Outside of novels, Lethem has published short fiction and lent his editing talents to a number of projects. Odd and shocking, This Shape We're In (an extended short story) is about an unforgettable trip to the hospital. The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye is a collection of seven short stories about everything from clones to professional basketball. Lethem and coauthor Carter Scholz have fun with the master of the bizarre in Kafka Americana: Fiction, a book of short stories with Kafka as the main character navigating absurd situations. Lethem edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, short stories about the art of forgetting by such authors as Philip K. Dick, Martin Amis, and Shirley Jackson. He was guest editor of The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, essays by writers on music.

Good To Know

Lethem's original artistic impulse was to be a painter. While he remains a talented graphic artist, he first acknowledged his deep desire to write while at Bennington, where fellow classmates included Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt.

Before he was a published writer, Lethem's only other jobs were in bookstores. His first bookstore job was at age 13, and he supported himself this way up to 1994 when his first novel was published. In San Francisco, he worked at the well-known Moe's Books, home of rare and antique tomes.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Jonathan Allan Lethem (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Left Bennington College after two years

Customer Reviews

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( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2013

    This book was so bad cound not imagine how any editor would publish it how did it get on the editorial review lists without anyone noticing there wasnt anyway to follow a plot

    New york times should be offering us a rebate! If it had been a food product they would have a nation wide recall of the product how did it get by or was it like the emperors new clothes? This book didnt have on its night shirt

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2013

    Heard a review on NPR. Was wait-listed for the book at my libra

    Heard a review on NPR. Was wait-listed for the book at my library. Surprised at how quickly I got it. Then I started reading it. I struggled with 5 chapters before I gave up. Despite my interest in the topic and time period, I found the writing difficult and inaccessible. I have a law degree but this book was just too much work.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2014

    Very good

    A slow start but an excellent read

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2013

    I'm having trouble getting through it.

    I'll let you know when/if I finish it.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2013

    An amazing book. Lethem does it again. 

    An amazing book. Lethem does it again. 

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    Posted September 18, 2013

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    Posted November 5, 2013

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    Posted September 29, 2013

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    Posted September 15, 2013

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    Posted October 5, 2013

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    Posted December 2, 2013

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